By Tanner Wasson
It’s funny how when you listen to hip hop today, it sounds like a completely different genre than the music the groundbreakers of rap were putting out. The journey that hip hop has taken has a pretty interesting path, and all fans have their favorite parts. Some people can’t stand anything that’s coming out today, and some people can’t appreciate anything more than 10 years old.
When you ask critics, you’ll find that most pick and choose albums from all over to compile their favorites, and what they consider the best hip hop. It’s pretty incredible how much fans and crits both disagree on hip hop, but even with an incredible amount of differing opinions, one album is almost always put at the top of hardcore hip hop fans.
Arguably the greatest rap record ever recorded, Nas’ Illmatic, is one of the most influential, if not THE most influential hip hop albums ever created. It’s hard to find rappers from any time since Illmatic dropped that don’t cite Nas as one of their biggest influences.He completely changed the hip hop world forever, and is truly an inspiration to all most all of the rappers today.
So, what is so special about Illmatic? In true (0’s east coast fashion, Nas made a gritty, lyrically surgical, icy album. Before the bravado of the production in hip hop you hear today, it was much more important to have content in your lyrics that would impress people. Nas does one of the most amazing jobs of this that I’ve ever heard. When people say they want “lyrical rap” Illmatic is the first album I would show them.
The album opens with “The Genesis”, It’s almost like one last chance to catch your breath, pay attention, and get comfortable for what you’re about to listen to. The short intro simply prepares you for the album. “NY State of Mind, is one of the most clear cut examples of east coast rap. Boom Bap drums, minimalist beat, and an artist that delivers gritty lines of gang violence and life in the city. This song is one of my favorite examples of Nas’ ability to tell a complex story without skipping a beat with his flow and lyrics. One of my favorite songs on the album, The moment I heard this I knew I was in for an exhilarating album. Life’s a B**** features the rapper AZ, (considered one of the most underrated lyricists ever) The instrumental and AZ hold this depressed tone on life, but then Nas comes in with his only verse of the track and breathes life into the track. He talks how blessed he is and talks about growing up and overcoming, the song almost unfolds as a journey. You see the struggles and sadness, then see Nas grow out of them into a positive, happier person. An intriguing contrast, and a great track. Continuing on Nas’ positivity from the last track, “The World is Yours” comes in and shows Nas still feeling on top of the world. Another lyrically dense song, Nas depicts the struggles of people in New York CIty and acknowledges them for their dedication, but the track also shows the grittier, more problematic path to surviving in NYC.He talks about the fears of losing his loved ones and the constant grind to stay afloat. “Halftime” coming in halfway through the album, is one of the most heavy songs on the album. Nas’ takes a more confident tone and ras about his success and life after overcoming the odds against him. Coming off completely uncaring to anyone that doesn’t think he’s one of the realest rappers. Instrumentally, this track features one of the best bass lines, almost impossible not to groove along as the song picks up another precise, clean drum line. “Memory Lane” takes us back to Nas’ high school days, as he thanks his listeners for helping him out of the struggle. One of my favorite instrumentals, the samples, and use of choir vocals, tie into the bass and drums so naturally, it’s hard to imagine them without each other. The seventh song on the album, “One Love’ isn’t about what the title might imply. Nas depicts the struggles of having his friends locked up in jail and not being able to see them. He talks about the struggles of comforting the families that are left behind by his friends serving sentences. Telling his friend the grim news that’s going on without him, an unfaithful girlfriend and another friend losing a family member, continuing to explain how it’s all the same stuff that’s always going on. A very insightful and scary look into how life was for the people in their neighborhood. Another minimalist instrumental, featuring an incredibly eerie piano that sets the tone for the events that are going on in their lives. “One Time for Your Mind” has one of my favorite beats, with light hi hats and a guitar twang that sound like they don’t belong, but end up tying the beat together perfectly. Nas delivers even more dense and precise verses, one of my favorite examples of “flow” in hip hop not just by Nas, not just on this album, but ever. “Represent” is one of the grittiest tracks on the album. Nas continues to explain the violence of the streets and fears of rival gangs and the police. Another amazing example of flow, Nas seems to constantly be speaking but yet it all sounds completely logical and sits [perfectly on top of the beat. The beat continues to flow with the album, with its simple but effective drum and bass lines, that magnify Nas’ delivery. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” really simplifies the beat, and let’s Nas deliver an outro. Wrapping up the whole album and concluding his thoughts on all of the topics discussed throughout the album.
Truly a masterpiece of lyricism, I can’t help but recommend this album to anyone that wants to listen to a lyrical rap album. No giant productions or synthetic beats and hooks, just rapping in it’s purest form, from beginning to end. My favorite rap album ever, and only a few albums have even come close.